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  • Jennifer Jewell

THE LOVE STORIES OF ABRA LEE, CONQUER THE SOIL & OAKLAND GARDEN CEMETERY, ATLANTA


FOODSCAPING - with Brie Arthur. Photo courtesy of Brie Arthur, all rights reserved.
 

 

Love is already a theme in the work of Cultivating Place, to be sure, but with last week’s loving work around the restoration of historic apple orchards in southwestern Colorado, and this week’s episode, which I think of as the Love Letters of Abra Lee, love letters, love stories, and loving gardeners is an explicit theme here this month!


In celebration of Black History Month in progress and Valentine’s Day coming up – this week we’re rejoined in conversation by Abra Lee, gardener, storyteller and garden scholar under the name of Conquer the Soil. Abra is a trained horticulturist, and a graduate of the Longwood Gardens Fellows program, a 13-month leadership in public horticulture fellowship.


In 2022, Abra was asked to teach a course in Black Garden History to graduate students in Landscape Architecture at Auburn University, her own alma mater. That cohort of students went on to design a show garden based on what they learned, and focused on Harlem Renaissance writer and gardener Effie Lee Newsome. The garden, entitled "Many Shades, Much Joy" won five top awards at the prestigious 2022 Philadelphia Flower and Garden Show.


In addition, Abra is continuing to to co-create a public garden exhibition, Music x Flowers, with Talia Boone, founder of Postal Petals. Music x Flowers premiered at the South Coast Botanic Garden in Southern California in 2022, and will be curated there again in 2023, as well as other botanical gardens around the country.


Abra has recently accepted a position as Director of Horticulture at the Oakland Cemetery, an historic Victorian garden cemetery in downtown Atlanta, Georgia.


This week’s conversation is a valentine to gardeners and garden lovers everywhere. Enjoy!


You can follow Abra online at: https://conquerthesoil.com/, and on Instagram: @conquerthesoil/


You can follow Oakland Cemetery online at: https://oaklandcemetery.com/, and on Instagram at:@oaklandcemetery


Images: Abra and members of the Oakland Cemetery horticulture and administrative teams in Atlanta, January 2023 including Cooper Sanchez, Sara Henderson, Abra Lee, and the fabulous historic Oakland Cemetery horticultural staff members Butch Teal and Janna Rhoden; Images from the Auburn University’s Black Garden History graduate class’ award-winning show garden, "Mixed Shades, Much Joy” at the 2022 Philadelphia Flower Show; Images from Abra Lee’s presentation at the June 2021 Slow Flowers Summit at Filoli Garden; Graphic from Music x Flowers exhibition and event at Southcoast Botanical Garden in San Diego, CA, summer 2022.




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JOIN US again next week, week we continue our celebration of Valentine’s Day, and African American Heritage Month, and the growing season in conversation with Bonnetta Adeeb of Ujaama seeds, and Nathan Kleinman of the Experimental Farm network. They are growers, breeders, activists, and inspiring souls. Listen in.


Cultivating Place is made possible in part by The Catto Shaw Foundation, supporting initiatives that empower women and help preserve the planet through the intersection of environmental advocacy, social justice, and creativity.




Speaking of Plants and Place.....


This week, we focus not so much on plants as on working with plants – specifically invasive plants and their removal courtesy of question from listener and gardener Claire Darley and answers courtesy of Brook Thompson and Joshua Chenoweth of the Klamath River Revegetation planning for post-dam removal on the river. Claire was concerned that there was an unspoken and un-interrogated wide-scale use of foliar herbicides on this large project to get invasive plants under control, when asked here was the very useful – and thoughtful – invasive plant removal protocols on this project, and we can hope a model for other largescale restoration projects in all our regions:


"Our invasive species removal program is indeed a careful integration of multiple methods that are all species-specific and adaptively managed based on results we see in the field. Brook explained our philosophy on herbicide use well; it is a last resort and is used at low concentrations, applied by hand (never from vehicles/aircraft) close to target plants to avoid non-target impacts and before flowering to avoid pollinator impacts. Our most common methods are:

Mowing – using string trimmers we mow ~3 times during the growing season to control cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) and medusahead (Elymus caput-medusae). This methods prevents these annual species from seeding and over time (2-3 years), the seed bank is exhausted and these species are reduced in abundance significantly.

Grubbing (physically pulling plants, roots an all) – this is done in mowing areas around important native species so that mowers don’t inadvertently mow them. This method is alos used to clean up after mowing late in the season when plants are small (trying to escape mowing) but flowering. There are also several species that we primarily grub including Dyer’s woad (Isatis tinctoria), teasel (Dipscus fullonum), Scotch thistle (Onopordum acanthium), musk thistle (Carduus nutans) and puncture vine (Tribulus terrestris). A few of these species are sometime too abundant to efficiently grub. In those situations, we use herbicide.

Deadheading – in some situations we machete-mow/deadhead teasel to prevent flowering that year. This species is a biennial and constant deadheading can prevent future infestations.

Herbicide – This is the only method used for species that cannot be effectively grubbed/mowed. They are all perennial species that have deep, wide-spread root systems that escape grubbing even with heavy equipment. Our primary target is Himalayan blackberry (Rubus armeniacus). The canes are cut and mulched and the newly cut stumps are painted/sponged with herbicide. This is a very effective method that uses little herbicide (no spraying) and directly kills the plant with minimal spread to soil/other plant species.

All of these methods are often repeated during the growing season (grubbing/mowing/deadheading) and require multiple years of treatments. "


As we as gardeners face the tedious and ongoing process of trying to get a hold over invasive plants, please remember the thorough, many-stepped, and patient process modeled by the Yurok Tribe’s care along their sacred Klamath River.


 


Thinking out loud this week:


Ok – well – is this conversation with Abra not the best Valentine you’ve had so far? I know it’s mine!


If we learned A LOT of apple names and history in last week’s program with Jude Schuenemeyer, we are learning a whole lot of great black grower’s names (historic and present day) in this episode with Abra Lee.


I had the truly great joy of walking the cemetery with Abra, with her predecessor and mentor in the director of horticulture position, the acclaimed Sara Henderson, and with Oakland hort staff members Cooper Sanchez, Butch Teal and Janna Rhoden. I could not help but be impressed by the scope and goals of this beautiful and historically-rich public green space, and the calibre of the staff dedicated to its care and its uplifting in the world.


I could not simultaneously be more saddened by the diminishing of such gardens and care in the Old City Cemetery of Sacramento, California where for decades the Sacramento perennial plant society tended a tremendous garden, for many years overseen by plantswoman Sharon Patrician, other gardens were stewarded by the Sacramento Rose Society, and Sacramento chapter of the California Native Plant society. For years, these biodiverse and storied gardens that welcomed thousands of people and no doubt other life, have been significantly cut back and diminished through city ordinances since 2020.


It is a signifier no doubt as to what we as humans, as communities, and as a generalized U.S. culture value in terms of where we put our time, our money, our love.


It is a reminder to support and applaud those who are working for plant places we value, and to vote with our voices, our dollars, our time and our resources for these very same values. These gardens and the legacies of these garden people ARE our love stories – past present and future.


 

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